Almost 30 years ago, Omaha singer-songwriter Simon Joyner and his friend (and sometimes bandmate) Chris Deden started a tradition: to gift each other the most obscure album they could possibly find for birthdays and holidays. It was an exercise in both fandom and one-upmanship. “Usually rare records that we knew of, but we just hadn’t found copies yet,” says Joyner.
Some time in the mid-1990s, Deden found an album he had never heard of: a privately-pressed 1971 release called Songs, which he bought based solely on its moody, rustic cover. “It looked like it might be a cool singer-songwriter record,” Joyner says. “He listened to it, and was blown away by it, so he ended up giving it to me, and the same thing happened. I just couldn’t believe this record. And that I’d never heard of this guy.”
“This guy” was Pat Ament, and to Joyner, his album was as start-to-finish good as similar first efforts by Leonard Cohen or John Prine. Its lyrics were full of heartbreak, wisdom, and confusion, and the stripped-down but ambitious sound featured Ament on vocals, piano, and Wurlitzer organ backed by two guitarists (classical and electric), as well as a jazz-inflected drummer. Some songs brought to mind the Doors; others, Chet Baker, Nick Drake, or Bill Fay.
Every musician that Joyner played Songs for wanted their own copy, but there weren’t others to be found. He was also unable to find a single piece of information on this unknown artist—not even after consulting Internet search engines (once they were available).
“All that came up was this famous mountain climber,” Joyner says. “I was like, ‘God, this mountain climber is so famous that he’s making it impossible to find out about this songwriter on Google!’” At one point, he even checked to see if anyone named “Pat Ament” had died in Vietnam. Finally, he clicked some of the climber’s search results, and came across a picture of him holding up a photo of Bob Dylan. “Then it just hit me. ‘Oh my God! It’s the same guy. The songwriter is the mountain climber!’”
Technically, he’s a rock climber: Boulder native and current Fruita resident Pat Ament, whose life of questing and adventure has also included gymnastics (at the University of Colorado), karate, visual art, photography, writing, riding the rails, documentary filmmaking, chess, and poetry. As a climber, Ament pioneered the use of chalk with fellow former gymnast John Gill, while he and Royal Robbins are credited with the first-ever 5.11 ascent in Colorado (Athlete’s Feat, Castle Rock, in 1964). He’s also written more than three dozen books, including biographies of Gill and Robbins.
Flash forward to 2011, when Joyner and Ben Goldberg of the New York indie label Ba Da Bing (Beirut, the Dead C, Sharon Van Etten) teamed up to start Grapefruit Records Club, a collector-focused vinyl label that began as a subscription-only club. A few years into that endeavor, Joyner realized he could make a dream come true. “In the back of my mind I always thought, if I ever had the chance, I would want to reissue this record,” he says. “It really meant a lot to me all these years.”
That meant finally finding Pat Ament…on Facebook, naturally. Joyner sent the musician/climber a lengthy, heartfelt message, telling him the whole story of his discovery of and passion for the record, and how he even wooed his future wife (who’d relocated from the West Coast to Nebraska), with an Ament-heavy mixtape.
And then…no response.
Of course, Joyner’s message had been lost inside the non-Facebook friend inbox hole. But he tried again, this time via their one mutual, a Nebraskan who’d moved to Fruita, and knew Ament from local poetry readings. Ament was intrigued but skeptical. The biggest hiccup: he didn’t think the record was that good, even when he made it. “I was very shy and kind of embarrassed about it initially,” says Ament, who’s now 71. “I wasn’t at the level that I needed to be at.”
Ament was always a musician, trained as a teenager to play the saxophone, and then self-taught on piano. He was writing poems and music all throughout the ’60s. Songs was something he made over a few days when he was 24, with a local psychologist (a friend and fan) bankrolling both the studio time and vinyl pressing. Ament played shows around Boulder, and the album could be heard on local radio (it being 1971, when much of the FM dial was freeform), but he didn’t make another record until 1981.
“People somehow think I was a climber first, and then suddenly I discovered music,” Ament says. “But really I was a musician, and I discovered climbing along the way. Music is always right at the heart of everything I do. But I had no time whatsoever to worry about whether the world found it or not.”
“It took a while to convince him to let us do it,” says Joyner. “He’s like, ‘Why would anybody want to hear that record? It’s like the first songs I ever wrote, they’re not very good.’ Ahhhhhh…they’re pretty damn good! It’s a pretty staggering collection of first songs.” Ament was also a little sheepish about the record being an obscurity, as if its underground, self-released status meant it wasn’t a success. But for the people who buy Grapefruit Records’ albums, that’s a selling point. An original copy of Songs has only been sold on the collector website Discogs a single time, for $150, though at some point Deder found a second one. Grapefruit mastered the reissue from his and Joyner’s personal copies, with an engineer picking the best version of each track between them. Deden’s more recent acquisition was also still in its original shrink wrap, so that’s the one the label scanned to reproduce the cover art.
What closed the deal was the opportunity for Ament to get some of his later work released. “If we were going to put out this record, he wanted there to be some kind of context for it,” says Joyner. So Ament chose what he thinks are 28 of his best songs from more recent years, out of a canon of 2,000-plus. Each copy of Songs comes with a compact disc of Time Moved On, while a second compilation, Draw Near To Me, is available as a free download.
Neil Young likes to say of his music that “it’s all one song.” For Ament, it’s all one life of creativity. “I’ve always pursued everything that has crossed my path,” he says. “It’s like a little boy who just loved life, and if he saw a new toy, he had to master it. It was just my nature to give everything I had to everything that I discovered, more or less.”
“I think if he’d focused only on music, he would have had all these records, and a career in music probably,” says Joyner. Songs and its two companion albums were released on February 23. But Google’s still not fully clued in about Pat Ament. Now, when you search his name, you get a pair of results—one for “American rock climber,” and another for “musical artist.”